I’m sure by now many of you have heard about the Stanford study claiming that organic foods are no healthier or safer than conventional alternatives.
There were so many problems with this study and the media reporting of it that it’s difficult to know where to start. To begin with, their results did not, in fact, support the claim that organic foods are “no healthier or safer” than conventional alternatives. Their data – if we are to take them at face value – suggest only that organic produce is no more nutritious than conventional produce. From their own conclusion:
The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
According to the authors, organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods. But, ahem, eating organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Somehow that last bit just slid right by in most of the media coverage of the study.
No mention of the fact that pesticides, herbicides and other harmful chemicals that have been shown to cause health problems – especially in vulnerable populations like children. No mention of the 2010 report issued by a panel of scientists convened to study the effects of environmental toxins on cancer urging Americans to eat organic produce grown without pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals, because the U.S. government has grossly underestimated the number of cancers caused by environmental toxins. No mention of the especially high risk these chemicals present to unborn children, such as lifelong endocrine disruption, hormone imbalances and other problems.
As important as those omissions are, I’d like to focus instead on nutrient content – since that is what the media coverage of the study primarily focused on. Is it really true that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods?
Did the Stanford Researchers Stack the Deck against Organic?
Mark Sisson has written an extensive critique of the Stanford study. He pointed out that it inexplicably omitted or undervalued certain nutrients from the comparison that have already been shown to be more concentrated in organic foods, such as vitamin C, polyphenols and flavonoids. He also references several other studies showing higher content of various nutrients in organic foods.
Mark highlights one study in particular which found that:
differences existed between newly-organic farms and more “mature” organic farms; the longer soil was worked using organic methods, the more nutrient-rich its produce. Thus, it’s possible that many of the studies showing little to no difference between conventional and organic were using “young” organic farms that had yet to reach their potential.
I think the balance of evidence suggests that organic food is, in fact, more nutritious than conventional food when the full nutrient spectrum is considered. And that’s important because we’ve learned a lot about how important many of the “secondary metabolites” in food that weren’t measured in the Stanford study are to human health.
When It Comes to Nutrient Content, Local Trumps Organic
Most of the produce sold at large supermarket chains is grown hundreds – if not thousands – of miles away, in places like California, Florida and Mexico. This is especially true when you’re eating foods that are out of season in your local area (like a banana in mid-winter in New York). Consider this:
The average carrot has traveled 1,838 miles to reach your dinner table.
Days – maybe more than a week – have passed since it was picked, packaged and trucked to the store, where it can sit on the shelves even longer.
The problem with this is that food starts to change as soon as it’s harvested and its nutrient content begins to deteriorate. Total vitamin C content of red peppers, tomatoes, apricots, peaches and papayas has been shown to be higher when these crops are picked ripe from the plant. This study compared the Vitamin C content of supermarket broccoli in May (in season) and supermarket broccoli in the Fall (shipped from another country). The result? The out-of-season broccoli had only half the vitamin C of the seasonal broccoli.
Without exposure to light (photosynthesis), many vegetables lose their nutrient value. If you buy vegetables from the supermarket that were picked a week ago, transported to the store in a dark truck, and then stored in the middle of a pile in the produce section, and then you put them in your dark refrigerator for several more days before eating them, chances are they’ve lost much of their nutrient value. A study at Penn State University found that spinach lost 47% of its folate after 8 days.
And here’s the thing: this nutrient loss happens regardless of whether the produce is conventional or organic.
This is why buying your produce at local farmer’s markets, or even better, picking it from your backyard garden, are better options than buying produce shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away – regardless of whether it’s conventional or organic. Fruits and vegetables from local farms are usually stored within one or two days of picking, which means their nutrient content will be higher. And as anyone who’s eaten a fresh tomato right off the vine will tell you, local produce tastes so much better than conventional produce it might as well be considered a completely different food.
The research study I’d really like to see is one comparing the following:
- “Industrial” organic produce (i.e. produce harvested more than a week before it’s consumed)
- “Industrial” conventional produce
- Local organic produce (i.e. produce harvested within a couple of days of consumption)
- Local conventional produce
Which Should You Choose? Conventional? Local? Organic?
Based on the data we have, my guess is both organic and conventional local produce would beat out industrial organic and conventional in terms of nutrient content. So if avoiding nutrient deficiencies and maximizing nutrient content are your only concerns, choosing locally grown foods (both organic and conventional) over foods from distant locales is your best bet.
However, if you’re concerned about exposure to pesticide and antibiotic-resistance, industrial organic might be a better choice than local conventional (assuming no local organic option is available).
And it’s also more supportive of fair labor practices, the maintenance of healthy soil and biodiversity and the strength of local communities. There’s a lot more to food than nutrition.
If money is tight and you can’t afford to buy local, organic produce from farmer’s markets exclusively, here’s what I’d suggest:
- Choose organic when it matters most. Some foods tend to be higher in pesticides than others. See this list for the 12 fruits and vegetables you should always buy organic.
- Buy local, conventional varieties rather than “industrial” conventional varieties whenever possible.
- Consider joining a CSA program. This is a convenient and often cheaper (than shopping at farmer’s markets) way to buy local, organic, seasonal produce. And you get to support your local farmers in the process.
- Start growing some of your own food. This is of course the cheapest alternative of all, and the most satisfying.
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Build a raised bed in your yard and grow your own! Lettuce, spinach, arugula, chard, kale, beets, green onions, radishes, even cucumbers on a trellis – all will grow in a small space if planned well! Make compost (which takes less room than one might think) to feed your vegetables! I am seriously passionate about the concept of growing your own. We struggle to do it on a large scale, but I have one little bed that is giving me all the arugula and cilantro I can swallow on a daily basis.
Seriously, what difference does it make how far the food has traveled, I would rather have an apple that was harvested and shipped in a great growing area instead of locally in conditions that were not ideal for growing. In addition how do I know how long the local food has been out of the grown before getting to the farmer’s market for me to buy and take home? Transportation to move fresh food is so much better than even 10 years ago, especially with so much being frozen right out of the ground. I’d love to support local growers but I’m paying so much more for organic food with no guarantee it is even organic or how long it has actually been out of the grown. The Stanford study covered a lot of solid evidence, just because one doesn’t like the results doesn’t me it doesn’t have merit. The other great myth going around is that the plant based diet is so much healthier than one with meats which contain fats, research just does not support that view any longer especially in regards to heart disease.
Ron, Distance does matter a great deal with fresh produce – this should actually be obvious but I guess not. Adding a negative condition such as a bad growing area does not add to the discussion for the variable adds no new information.
If you wanted to actually discuss this then you should look at distance, growing conditions, requirements for travel (IE: do crops ship before they are ripe – like the terrible peaches so many of us have to put up or just look at bananas .. and how bland Chiquita brand is.
As for apples there are actually much more appropriate discussions regarding freshness because there is storage, type of apple etc.
Loss of quality is obvious to those of us who are able to eat fresh veg direct from the field – same is true of fish and not of meat where the opposite problem exists because most consumers do not understand aging etc.
Transport is not really any better than before with regards to freshness – far from it, the techniques are simply far superior and even patented in regards to perfecting the ability to ship very low cost crops from countries with less controls huge distances with minimal spoilage – it is just that we are conditioned to garbage food and do not notice when tricks are played.
As to organics there are always debates… but if you ignore this and simply taste the difference between fresh crops and those that ship long distances you will taste the difference. You can even measure the drop in quality – another simple test you can do at home is the fridge test…. take fresh crops and store them in your fridge along side the same crop that traveled a long distance – note the condition of each (stored correctly) day by day.
To add to the confusion there is also the different ways crops are grown .. even locally .. but that is another discussion.
I believe your “research” might be a bit outdated as the Medicare program officially approved the Dean Ornish program for reversing heart disease about 3 years ago. It’s based on a vegetarian diet and you can see all the results of the research at http://www.cms.gov/medicare-coverage-database/details/nca-decision-memo.aspx?NCAId=240&NcaName=Intensive+Cardiac+Rehabilitation+%28ICR%29+Program+-+Dr.+Ornish%27s+Program+for+Reversing+Heart+Disease&NCDId=341&ncdver=1&IsPopup=y&bc=AAAAAAAAEAAA&
I wish it were funny.
I would agree home grown organic or local organic are great, and biodynamic even better. However much I disagree with food miles, I would not eat local food grown with pesticides and fungicides. Not only for my family’s health, but also for the environment. Bees and other pollinators, that ensure that we have fruits etc, are struggling to survive in the toxic world that we have created. If apples are routinely sprayed 17 times, and oilseed rape 22 times, I don’ t want to be a part of that.
What I’d really like to know is whether there are ways to remove or at least mitigate the pesticide load in/on conventionally grown fruit and vege?
I’ve heard old wives tales – ie. soaking in vinegar to remove pesticide residues.. or of course skinning/peeling certain fruits and veges will obviously make a difference. Has anyone actually seen any tests done on this, or know of any other methods to significantly reduce pesticide load?
Around the one local, organic farm gate I purchase fruit & veg from, there are a dozen local, conventional farm gates that claim they use a “minimal” amount of pesticides and only when absolutely necessary at certain times of the year.. I’d love to purchase their produce and save myself a ton of money, if I had a surefire method of removing the majority of the pesticides they’ve incurred.
Benjamin- Many insecticides and other ag chemicals are systemic, you can’t wash them off. Your IPM farmers are most likely using RoundUp which has been proven to interfere with the soil food web in ways that reduce the available nutrients of food grown on those soils. Skip your high priced commercial organic farmer and find yourself an ‘organic movement’ farmer, a person who has been growing organic since the 70s and does it not to make a lot of money but to give the best food possible for his family and his neighbors. Or join a grassroots CSA, again, one that grows for people, not for dollars. They are around. we grow that way at freshandlocalCSA, as do my many farming friends
Allan thanks very much for the reply.
I thought as much (hence refraining from purchasing their fruit and veg) but was hoping I might be mistaken.
I’m definitely going to look into a CSA and being lucky enough to live in an area with “honesty box” roadside stalls providing homegrown produce, I might ask a few of the owners whether their produce is sprayed. At local farmers market I often tend to hear “Our produce isn’t certified organic, but it is spray free”. This is usually good enough for me considering they picked it out of the earth that morning.
Thanks again for your reply, much appreciated.
Great thread. One of Paul Chek’s lesser known books – Under the Veil of Deception is a great resource on this topic. Great for friends, clients who are convinced that there is no benefit to eating organic.
Forgot to mention that we are also working with several groups in the USA who are trying to help community garden programs get grants for themselves and support aid groups like those helping down syndrome and vets struggling. Healthy food can really make a difference to ones ability to think, study, and improve ones access to opportunities.
I think it is well documented that if you eat local you have fresher and healthier foods – that is across the board… seafood, … ever tasted a banana outside of North America.. the taste is fantastic.
I work in over 20 countries with initiatives to do this very thing but also help groups in North America exchange (in bulk not pills) crops that have proven themselves in other countries to benefit people… we are now working on a project to help community food programs use Moringa produced in poor countries – we use bulk amounts and I was wondering if you had any comments regarding Moringa’s nutritional value (even in powder form) when added to local organic crops to make soups etc. Are there any concerns – there are some comments about those who have high blood pressure but I have yet to find a clinical study in this regard. I know this is hijacking the conversation a bit but I assume most of the other people are in agreement with you.
Not sure if you get to see comments on posts as old as this one, but here it goes.
Where do you think fresh frozen produce falls in this nutrient density framework? I agree with your conclusions but was wondering how to think about the frozen stuff.
Frozen is a better choice in some cases when you can’t get fresh, local produce.
I have a 4 mo old and my wife has been having trouble with milk production so we are doing the bottle thing and have been supplementing with the green pasture emulsified cod liver oil as well with vit D and probiotics. My wife was at her naturopath appt. today and was told by the naturopath that the peppermint in the oil we were using would cause gut irritation and would/could manifest in symptoms of excessive drooling as well as spitting up of formula. Now this is my first kid so I don’t have a lot to compare it to but she does drool quite a bit and she does not have any teeth coming in that I can feel. Not sure what normal drool and spit up is. She does not puke after every bottle and I don’t think even that often, especially if we are not throwing her around. My wife did not have our child present at her appointment with the naturopath.
Does this Naturopath know what she is talking about? She also had in her food recommendation of when to introduce foods like oats, wheat products, etc. so I don’t know how much to believe about the peppermint.
Also, she recommended we suppliment with colostrum due to the fact we are not breast feeding. What are your thoughts and do you recommend any products. We do not have access to the real stuff but this lady was recommending a bovine type.
Thanks for all your help and keep up the good work.
I’m really glad I read this. I usually just buy fruits and vegetables from the grocery store. I don’t even consider whether they’re organic or not.
From now on I’m going to try to remember to buy from local farmers. Not only because it’s more nutritious but because it also supports the farmers instead of supporting the huge grocery store companies.
I live in Florida and was amazed at all that goes on to raise Florida tomatoes in the winter! I just read Tomatoland by Eastabrook. Here is a link to a summary of the book
I was very discouraged to find that these tomatoes are sprayed HEAVILY, 8x more than the tomatoes from California because of the fungus and bugs!! Not to mention the horrible practice of employing the illegal worker under horrible conditions to plant and work the fields. In this case local is NOT best!!!
Trucking produce all the way from Calif takes days so, it def is a catch twenty two situation.
Frozen food is definitely part of the picture for me.
Nancy – I’ve look for a 2nd opinion!! Most health food movements consider frozen food to be worthless in a human diet. It’s BEYOND DEAD. We get more than minerals and vitamins from produce but minerals and vitamins are about all you get from frozen food.
Shall I turn off my freezers and pour all my fruit, vegies and meat into the offal pit? Don’t think so.
I guess I am not “most health food movements”.
Please help me to any sort of reliable information that implies that frozen food is “worthless”… It’s a completely insane statement. I have known people who only consume frozen food, day out and day in, I wouldn’t say they are the most healthy I know, but definitely not sick either.
In my experience, if a person is well fed in their childhood, they can live on this foundation for a long time, even if they only eat FAKE FOOD. My folks lived pretty much on all-you-can-eat buffets for the last 30 years of their lives. Seemed as healthy as me, really, but both died of cancer last year. Chris Kresser should step in on this thread because the real issues about frozen food revolve around Chinese medicine and ‘the real reason why we eat.’ (“Chi,” which is pretty damaged once a vegetable or fruit has been frozen) A simpler answer but an obvious one is that FROZEN FOOD is PROCESSED FOOD (never forget that processors are allowed to use chemicals that are NOT required to be listed on the label as ingredients) Isn’t that a basic tenet of Chris Kresser’s teachings and of Paleo in general? Eat REAL FOOD. Frozen produce is no longer real food, be it Organic or not. The macrobiotics explain the damage of freezing by the fact that frozen vegetables no longer hold their original shape once thawed. (Chi is gone or damaged) They ‘slump’ because they’ve lost the energy of their form. Meat, thank heavens, doesn’t do this, so a frozen steak is just fine. 😉
I worked at a frozen food plant for 14 yrs. Nothing went into those veggies. A brine was used to float out the peas but it would go through so much water before hitting the freezer. The only thing I would say is sometimes those brand name veggies would be rerun to meet their high standards. So, if I like a generic brand I will go with it, And yes we did do bulk and individual packaging
Frozen peas hold their shape! Hope they’re OK.
I’m also interested in the nutritional qualities of frozen food– I live in Philadelphia, and local organic is only available for about half the year.
Frozen is good. Better than canned. You just might find frozen organic.
My preference is certainly local and organic if possible. With regards to flavor there is a hugh difference between local and industrial, but I typically don’t notice a difference with organic. I find it very odd that local and organic is typically much more expensive. The major cost of growing food is in the pesticides and shipping costs and it seem as if local/organic should be much less expensive. I believe that the organic stamp automatically jacks up the price of produce and really don’t believe that the cost justifies the benefit. We need to go back to the good old days with farmstands on every corner!
Geoff, the major costs with growing fresh produce are not pesticides and shipping, it is the labour, and the land cost that are the greatest costs.
if you are trying to farm anywhere near a large city, e.g. in the SF bay area, how much do you think that land costs compared to Bakersfield or Mexico? And then think about the labour cost – if you are the farmer and trying to make your living, as opposed to the large farm using mexican labourers?
With organics, there are no pesticides involved, so no cost there. Transport is relatively cheap.
The labour time required for growing/harvesting/handling fresh produce – on small scales where you can’t do it mechanically – is simply amazing. This is why grain based agriculture and corporate farms have taken over, the economies of scale and mechanisation are huge.
I am speaking as someone who grew up on a grain + cattle farm, and now help my partner with her organic veggie operation – it is hard to truly understand how much time is involved until you do it.
if you don;t support your local growers, in time, , there won;t be any.
Jeff and Paul – there ARE pesticides involved in organics and they are VERY EXPENSIVE insecticides and antifungals! THEY ARE different than conventional insecticides in that they disburse into the environment relatively rapidly and leave no residues but, believe me, they ARE and EXPENSE for organic farmers.
The more mechanization used in producing vegetables, the lower the nutritional potential. I’m with Paul, you would not believe how much time is required to put in a 100 ft bed of biodynamic vegetables (especially if you go into how long it takes to make all the wonderful compost! 😉 There is no way the price of the produce compensates us for our time.
This is a labor of LOVE and yet few realize it and continue to support produce produced by tractors and crop sprayers!
Thanks for the info. always good and always though provoking.
As a long time reader and first time poster I had some nagging questions (hope you don’t mind a little off topic – as my thoughts came from scouring all the Q&A from other articles of yours).
Background: mid 40’s and for 20 yrs on SAD low fat diet. gained a few pounds but relatively fit with 30 min of cardio a day and 30 min of weights (20 plus years). 5’7″ 160, 12-14% (est) body fat.
Cholesterol tested 2 yrs ago at 260, of which HDL was a paltry 42. Went super-duper low fat, eating all the SAD ‘right foods”. Always hungry and then retested 6 mths later, TC dropped to 220(?) and HDL to 38! (bummer), TG about 110. Was prescribed Crestor – took for 2 days until I stumbled upon LC websites.
Gave it a shot.
1 yr later, dropped 6 lbs (added benefit), Had to have all pants taken in 2 inches. Got leaner – both plusses! But, goal was lipids. TC went to 262, HDL went to 72, TG in 90’s. So ratio of TC/HD went from 5.1 to 3.9 and TG/HDL was great. So, I was not concerned by “high” LDL. Happy as a clam.
Diet like this:
breakfast – 3 eggs, bacon, cheese on weekend. Weekdays almond milk + scoop of whey protein (snack midmorning 3 eggs if weekday)
lunch – steak (8 to 16 oz) or ceaser salad with grilled chicken, or two burgers no buns, or big salad with tuna
dinner – salmon, or organic burgers, or hotdogs, or steak. light salad, plenty (and mean plenty of broccoli, cauliflower etc (as they are low carb), with cheese and butter of course
during day or snacks; 4-8 oz of hard cheeses, pork rinds, plenty of almonds
Food cooked in Coconut oil and organic butter.
I also mapped my daily intake of everything i put in my mouth. Result, 72-75% fat by calories, about 20% protein, and 5% carbs (so i assume VLC diet infact). No rice, no grains etc. the carbs were just fro cheese and veggies (net carbs), the occasional strawberry etc. Was between 30-50 net carbs a day.
Mad some changes to diet
1. started cooking eggs and fish etc in pork fat from all the bacon i ate
2. added 4 oz of heavy cream every day to my almond milk and why shake for post workout – oh sooooo good and creamy (panicked wife of course)
3. always ate chicken skin (noticed you say high in O6 now, oops)
4. snacked on alot of commercial pork rinds (need a crunchy food and good for dips when hosting, or sub for nachoes, or good as bagel/bread replacement when have lox and cream cheese
5. ate alot of almonds and peanut butter
6. switched to sea salt (OOOOPS!)
7. more califlower and broccoli as standby foods (cabbage too!)
Anyway. another year passes – some joint paint, tennis elbow quite bad, and i dont even play tennis. finally slowly going away with help of ibruprofin (sp?) Take potassium for leg cramps. Take MG, as i was quite constipated regularly. And fatigue as well.
Then went for another blood test,, at yr 2 of LC. TC now 363 (freaking everyone out). HDL 64, LDL 260. TG 115. 363!!!!! 363!!!!
From your site etc, i think i am hypothyroid now.
Sea salt only
crucifer veggies in abundance
(added saurkraft too for a week before the test)
Have early symptoms of:
cold intolerance, constipation, fatigues, muscles cramps and joint pain, elevated serum cholesterol
Supplements include: 2 super fish oil (2400 MG) plus 1 krill. 3 MG of C, a multi (one a day generic), D3 – 2000iu, Mag Citrate 400 MG, Super B12 100
Just cut out Fish and Krill oil. Added K2, added 250 MCG of Iodine (plan to double monthly to 1 G, take 2 brazil nuts a day for selenium. added copper, at 2 mg a day (and zinc weekly at 50 mg to balance Cu).
T3 uptake 36
(being in NY, i cant do my own bloodwork so i have to go see my Doc)
So, i have some questions
Q1: Pork pellets (skin in natural oils) that you microwave into pork rinds, cooking in own fat). Are these too high in Omega 6 or other toxins (Julia’s Pantry pork pellets). I find these terrific substitutes for commercially fried pork rinds and great to be used as a nachos substitute (i surely do miss crunchy stuff), to dip in homemade guacomole etc). Is this the cause of my soaring LDL? Or a Omega 6 issue (nuts, etc).
Q2: Was the addition of 4 oz of heavy cream to my almond mild +whey post workout each morning the contributor to the spike in LDL?
Q3: Could cortisol/stress have anything to do with it. Over the past 6 mths a VERY stressful life (family member illness, but i wont go into it). Cause of LDL?
Q4: can this cholesterol kill me while i try to make adjustments? DON’T want crestor!
I gave you all that background, but my concern are those 4 Qs above.
Thank you in advance.
Local Food over Organic Food? Don’t be foolish. Most anyone at a farmers market is there to make money. Chemicals help people make money. Corporations will never use more chemicals than necessary to make money (bottom line control) but local chemmie farmers often operate under ‘more is better’ theories so they really load your produce with chemicals. Further more, they often are not aware of ‘lock out’ times on farm chemicals so may serve up produce that’s even more dangerous than a corporation would. The use of chemicals by small local farms simply has about zero oversight. You’re on your own when you’re dealing with someone who makes his living selling your family food he’s put poison on. Think about it!
Allan, you seem to be a contradicting yourself here.
in your first post you say avoid USDA certified organic, and in your second you say local over organic is foolish – so what is your position?
I have numerous local farmers who can’t afford the time/cost/bureaucracy of getting certified organic, but I am very happy to buy from. At the farmers market you get to something you can;t do anywhere else – you can look the farmer in the eye and ask them if they use any chemicals on their crops. Several have opened up ther (small) farms for tours, Joel Salatin style. They are not organic – and it sounds like you aren’t either – but they are integral, and stewarding their land, crops and animals.
The stewardship is what is important, and the more we take an interest in what local farmers do and don;t do, the more they will (and do) respond to such interest. Thus, it is possible to keep local farmers honest. With non -local, you have almost always no certainty on what they do or don’t do, organic or not.
It looks to me like we are pretty much in agreement, Paul. The USDA co-option of the word ‘organic’ makes it pretty difficult for consumers to communicate on the topic. I’m with you: stewardship is everything and full nutritious foods (filled with the unknowns, what we call ‘X” factors) only come from well tended soils. What I was trying to say is that USDA organic does NOT guarantee (or even try for!) that sort of soil quality, non certified eco ag people, though, often make it the most important part of their farming, often above ‘making a profit.’ I was allowing that someone c.b. USDA organic certified and also have the integrity to take care of their soils over and above USDA certification requirements.Your point is well taken: buy directly from farmers you can talk to! THANKS!